Sunday, 6 February 2011

Wenger must take some of the blame for our capitulation at St James' Park

Newcastle United 4 - Arsenal 4
Premier League 
At St James' Park

We know going to St James' Park was never going to be easy. But to come away from the game having been four goals up at half time leaves me asking myself a lot of questions about how it all went wrong.

There was a lot of good humour on Twitter at half time. We had set out on the front foot from the off. Scored four fantastic goals and the remainder of the match should have seen us coast through to full time, perhaps adding another goal or three.

However that good feeling Gooners had quickly turned to anger at full time. Basically, how could we let that lead slip away and drop two points?

We opened the scoring within 45 seconds. Theo Walcott racing on to an Andrey Arshavin flick to set us on our way to an early lead.

Minutes later we doubled our lead when Johan Djourou scored his first professional goal for the club with a header from Arshavin's free kick.

I don't think any Gooners would have expected us to start this well but there was more to come.

Walcott crossed from the right and van Persie notched his first goal of the afternoon with a nicely taken right footed drive.

Ten minutes gone and we were three goals to the good. Every department had played its part in getting us into this lead.

And 16 minutes after scoring our third goal saw us adding our fourth. Van Persie the man to stick the ball in the back of the net with an excellent header from Sagna's cross.

We had exploited Newcastle's weakness' well but for the remainder of the half didn't add to the score-line.

Minutes into the second period was when our fortune changed. Djourou who had been so solid in his partnership with Laurent Koscielny  hobbled off with a knee injury. That meant the Swiss defender was replaced by Sebastien Squillaci, who had returned to the bench following his one match ban after being sent off against Huddersfield.

A tweet came in. It wasn't good reading. The Squillaci - Koscielny partnership had resulted in too many defeats to make me think the game was over.

Two minutes later we suffered another huge blow. Joey Barton came in on Abou Diaby with his second dangerous tackle of the match. Referee Phil Dowd allowed Barton to get away with an appalling challenge on Arshavin in the first half without a booking. And now he had his sights set on our French midfielder.

Diaby reacted badly to the challenge and you can't blame him. Yes, Barton got the ball but he went in with the aim of taking the Frenchman out. The referee offered him no protection and after the time he has spent out through injury, why should he be happy to be tackled in such a dangerous manner.

However he did lose his head and let emotion get the better of him. He shouldn't have reacted in the way he did and raising his hands to not one but two Newcastle player saw him shown a straight red card.

The complex of the game changed and the home team sensed  they could get something from us.

And they get their foot in the door, 20 minutes after the sending off with a dive in the box which sees them awarded a penalty.

Leon Best goes down after Koscienly toe pokes the ball away from him from between his legs and Dowd points to the spot. It is obvious from the run of the ball that our defender got the ball but Dowd doesn't see it and Barton steps up to put the ball in the back of the net.

There is a melee after the goal when Barton and Kevin Nolan go in to collect the ball. Szczesny has hold of hit but both Newcastle players raise their hands and push our goalkeeper to the ground. Nolan had his arm round the Pole's neck in much the same way as Diaby diid with Barton.

The referee books Szczesny and Nolan, the first time he takes the name of a home player in the match, 69 minutes in. Quite clearly one rule applies to the away team which doesn't apply to the home side. If the referee was consistent he would have sent off Nolan. But this is Phil Dowd. And we all know he's one of the worst referee's in the league.

Arsene Wenger immediately makes a change. Tomas Rosicky replaces Andrey Arshavin. Not the change I would have made (more on which latter).

For Newcastle's second you can't blame the Arsenal players too much. A cross is played to the far post, Clichy challenges in the air with Best who fortunately brought the ball down well and slid a shot underneath Szczesny.

There were 16 minutes to go at this point and tide was turning.

Wenger makes his third and final substitution with Emmanuel Eboue replacing Theo Walcott on the right two minutes after the home side score their second goal.

With five minutes of normal time to go, the referee was in on the action for Newcastle's third. A free kick is played in deep from the left and Mike Williamson jumps with Koscielny and Rosicky. The Frenchman pacing back towards the ball and the Czech coming forward to meet it sandwich the Newcastle defender but there is no way in a month of Sunday's that was a penalty.

If that had been given for us I would have said it was a very soft decision. But the assistant referee on the near side made the decision and Barton steps up to slot the ball home from the spot for the second time in the afternoon.

The Newcastle midfielder was in on the action for Newcastle's fourth as well. Falling over then Rosicky jumped with him for the ball on the right. The free kick was swung over and well defended by Arsenal but the resulting ball fell to Cheik Tiote who hammers in a volley from outside the box to level the scores. A wonder goal. 

A four goal lead and we mucked it all up. At full time it finished level at 4-4.

But there are factors which led to our own downfall.

Diaby's sending off

I've covered this already with my message to the Frenchman.

Phil Dowd

As I've already pointed out, the referee made two massive errors in my opinion with the penalty kicks he awarded. Both were very soft. But when you consider his statistics when he's officiated our games: W0 - D2 - L1 and he's sent two of our players off, you can see why he is Arsenal players least favourite referee.

He offers us no protection against mindless thuggery and as my friend over at 7amkickoff points out: "Arsenal's opponents average 12 fouls per game when playing us and with Dowd that number goes up to 14.6," it can be backed up by statistics.

Barton should have been at least yellow carded but walked through the game without picking up a booking. As for Nolan, if what Diaby did was a sending off offense, why wasn't the Newcastle captain awarded the same equal treatment?

Dowd is just useless and I hope we don't see him in charge of one of our games any time soon, if ever.

Arsene Wenger's substitutions

This what I believe is one part of a manner of things which led to our own downfall. Arsene Wenger's decisions on substitutions.

His hands were tied when it came to replacing Djourou. No Song, so it meant he needed to bring on Squillaci.

In my opinion replacing Arshavin with Rosicky was completely the wrong substitution to make. Nicklas Bendtner or Marouane Chamakah offered a better option.

Wenger could have moved van Persie into the left hand side and allowed Bendtner or Chamakh to patrol the forward line.

Arsenal had lost height with the withdrawal of Djourou and the sending off of Diaby. Van Persie was coming deeper and deeper to try and get involved with play and when we needed an out ball - someone to hold the ball up in Newcastle's half there was no one there.

We needed to change our tatics to deal with Newcastle's new game plan but the manager didn't switch things around.

Wenger said in his post match press conference that his players were to worried to protect our lead with ten men and go on and win the game. But I would put some of the blame with the manager. Rosicky for Arshavin is a like for like substitution and no matter how much I love Tomas Rosicky, he's not in the form of his life at the moment and wasn't going to pull up any trees.

He's a grafter and more industrious than Arshavin and would have offered us more protection on the left than the Russian.

But he was a defensive substitution.

Then to replace Walcott with Eboue is yet another defensive substitution. We needed to get back on the  front foot. Instead we were watching our lead slip away.

To me, the manager needs to take responsibility for his decision to get defensive. We are crap at protecting a lead. We need to go out and win things, not sit back.

Too many times already we have let ourselves lose or draw from winning positions. And if the manager thinks the players aren't responding, we need him to make more positive changes and show leadership in the substitutions he makes.

Yesterday was the perfect example of how replacing Arshavin with Bendtner would have worked in our favour.

Final thoughts

Overall, with Manchester United losing, we have gained a point on them in the title race. Yes, we could have been two points behind them but as already stated, there are mitigating circumstances. One thing's for sure. We can't let ourselves become complacent again like we did at St James' Park. To do so would be fatal in our chances of winning the title.

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